What’s a girl to do when she has to leave her home, move to a strange country, and marry a man she’s never met? What can any woman do when she finds herself miles away from everything she knows, hemmed in on all sides by intrigue and shackled to a man who may be old, ugly, diseased, a drooling imbecile or all four at once? If she’s a queen, she might just take a handsome lover!
Eleanor Herman’s fast-paced, readable account of royal ladies and their paramours can boast that there is never a dull moment in any of its nearly 300 pages. From doomed Anne Boleyn, sent to the block for adultery she never committed to the scandals surrounding Princess Diana of Wales, Herman gives us the triumphs and tragedies of some of the most powerful women in history. Catherine the Great’s lovers were so numerous that her enemies whispered that no man could satisfy her; she took partners at will, even after she fell in love with the brilliant Gregory Potemkin. By contrast, Marie Antoinette of France had only one: the Swedish Count Axel Fersen, but the French people were much less accommodating than the Russians.
Some of these royal studs were an asset to the women they loved and some were not. Johann Von Struensee, lover of Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark, is credited with helping bring his country into the modern age. During the 18th century, many of Denmark’s laws still dated from medieval times. Struensee advised King Christian VII to update them and streamlined much of the official government bureaucracy. The King, almost completely insane due to a combination of alcoholism, inbreeding and continual beatings at the hands of his tutors when he was a child, was delighted to leave the business of ruling the kingdom to his wife and Struensee. Unfortunately, the queen and her lover were toppled by a coup and Struensee executed.
At the other end of the scale, many of Catherine the Great’s lovers were mere boy-toys. She chose them for their looks and paid them off when she was tired of them. Caroline of Brunswick, wife of King George IV of England had numerous affairs, but none of them were of much help when the King finally decided to divorce her and humiliated her by having her locked out of his coronation ceremony.
Whether help, hindrance, or deadly mistake, a lover helped make life bearable for a Queen. Despite her wealth and position, she had nothing to call her own. When a princess married, her lands and money became the property of her husband. Her children were the property of the Crown, often raised in separate households away from her. Most of the time, she was not even allowed to bring waiting-women or other servants from her homeland. The price for riches and power was unbearable loneliness.
Herman does not spare anyone’s character. Some queens were wise and kind, others vain and silly; some lovers were politically brilliant and others a disaster, but whatever the case, she casts a warm glow of sympathy as she describes the gilded cages that housed the royal women of Europe. In giving rich and full descriptions of their captivity, Herman encourages her readers to empathize with a group of people almost nobody empathizes with: the rich and powerful. Gilded the cages might be; but a Queen was never in doubt of the strength of the bars.